There is a book on my shelf, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which has shaped my view of grief and loss more profoundly than anything else. Upon the death of her husband at the dinner table, Didion writes, "Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."
I heard her read these words when she visited my college. I have a signed copy from her wishing me a happy birthday. Today is my birthday, which in and of itself seems an incredibly self-centered sentence to write, but it is what it is. My 20th birthday was the day of the Virginia Tech massacre. In these times, I know that I cannot approximate the suffering of others, particularly those who have not been as fortunate as me. I can only make sense of my own grief, my own limited experience. I share it now both in the hope that it will bring comfort to others and selfishly to process my own crippling bewilderment. And in the hope that I can stop crying.
I do not know anyone, yet, who was injured on Boylston Street yesterday. I do know people who were standing near the finish line, who ran as fast as they could. I was standing at the finish line around 2 p.m. I went home to walk the dog and was planning on returning to meet friends. After navigating my way through the crush of people, past the waving flags of a pop-up United Nations, past the barricades blocking my usual path, past the police officers and their neat solider-rows of bicycles, past the schoolbuses and the medical tents, past the Starbucks now without windows, I made it home.
And I stayed home. I was tired of the crowds. I'd had a Bloody Mary with brunch and was feeling sleepy. Then my partner Sam texted me at 2:52 p.m. and told me to call him immediately.
My partner works at the top of a very tall building overlooking Boylston Street, a street I previously associated with overpriced restaurants and the Apple Store. It's the kind of street you walk down to kill time on a Sunday afternoon. There is plenty to see and do.
As it became clear that there were explosions in the plural, and that his entire building was shaken, I felt the numb of a peculiar kind of panic. Looking at his face looking at mine through an iPhone, I wondered for a time if this would be some critical moment in my life. There was a very real feeling that it could be the last time I saw him, here through a four-inch screen. Neither of us had any real information. Sam was looking down at the blood on the street. He had an eagle eye view of everything yet knew virtually nothing.
Sam is home now. We have spent numb hours watching television, flipping back and forth between Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow. We could walk outside and see them, maybe say hello. It's a shame the good wine has already been drunk. I went to bed before Sam, knowing that I needed to get up and go to work early. Surprisingly, I fell quickly asleep.
He wakes me up with a screaming nightmare. His hands are on my hands. He is saying over and over again, "I caught you. I caught you. I caught you."
Once he is asleep again, I pull Magical Thinking off the shelf.
I came to Boston in 2008 as a young man with a college degree. I grew into an adult here. I have made my life here, a life that now feels inalterably different. Didion writes that, "...when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all."
Although most of us will return to normal, we will mourn for the injured and the fallen. But selfishly we will also mourn our former selves. We are no longer the people who went blithely to Boylston yesterday, with an innocent joy, complaining about the doggedness of a lingering winter chill. Even on the sunniest day, even when we have caught the perpetrator, even one hundred marathons from now, Bostonians new and old will remember. And we will hold each other that much tighter in the night.